Flabby Apples

6 April 2013

Machmer GewurztraminerSometimes it pays to drink odd, and sometimes it doesn’t. Every now and then, despite my best efforts, I buy something that is simply not to my taste. In some cases, there’s no way I could have predicted that the wine wouldn’t be to my liking, but often, as in this instance, I probably could have figured it out before I plunked down $14. As I looked more closely at the label of the wine in question, I discovered a major red flag, a red flag I ignored at my peril. If you prefer your wine on the dry side, or at least balanced, you’ll want to read on.

Germany produces great seas of white wine, but the rosy-skinned, highly perfumed Gewürztraminer variety accounts for a relative drop in that Riesling-dominated ocean. According to my 2006 edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Gewürztraminer vines occupy only about 2,000 acres of German vineyards, as compared to over 51,000 acres devoted to Riesling. Because of its relative rarity, and because I recently had a magnificent German Gewürztraminer by Wasenweiler, I felt a thrill of excitement when I discovered a bottle of affordable German Gewürztraminer at Binny’s.

I snapped up the $14 bottle of 2010 G & M Machmer Bechtheimer Gewürztraminer Spätlese from the Rheinhessen region. It noted a town on its label (Bechtheim) and indicated that it was estate bottled, which gave me confidence in its quality (never mind that I had no idea where the town was).

Had I paid the slightest attention to the back label, I might have noticed a warning sign. Only 10.5% of the wine was alcohol. That relatively low percentage indicates that less of the grapes’ sugars were converted into alcohol, resulting in a sweeter wine. I don’t mind sweet wines necessarily, but I do want them to be balanced. Balance, unfortunately, was not one of the Machmer Bechtheimer Gewürztraminer Spätlese’s strong points.

Pork roastThe wine had the pleasant tropical fruit aroma I expect from a Gewürztraminer, along with something intriguingly green. Its syrupy texture was leavened with a bit of pétillance, but its sweet, almost flabby apple flavor managed to sharpen up only at the very end, when it tightened into some tartness on the finish. The acids made more of an effort to appear when I paired the wine with some roast pork and homemade spätzle, but this wine lacked the spicy raciness I’ve come to love in well-made Gewürztraminers.

Lesson learned. A village name on a German wine label might be seductive, but from now on, I’m always going to check that alcohol content. The higher it is, the drier the wine is likelier to be. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but if you find a Gewürztraminer or Riesling that is less than 11% alcohol, I’d suggest putting it back on the rack and trying something else.


2010 G & M Machmer Bechtheimer Gewürztraminer Spätlese: Appealing aromas, but overly sweet and a bit flabby, tightening up only at the very end.

Grade: C

Find It: I purchased this wine for $14 at Binny’s.

Worth Traveling For

15 December 2012
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Baden will always have a special place in my heart. This extravagantly beautiful ex-duchy in Germany’s far southwest was the first (and only) wine region where I’ve actually lived. From my base in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, the beguiling capital of the Black Forest, I remember striking out on my bicycle along unpaved paths to villages like Staufen, nestled at the foot of hillside vineyards leading up to a ruined castle. Some friends and I even biked across the Rhein River to Colmar in the Alsace region; I love that my first entry into France was by bicycle rather than airplane.

Some of my Mitstudenten gathered for a 10-year reunion in Freiburg back in 2009, and in between visits to our dorms and a favorite Biergarten or two, we took a train to Ihringen, an important wine village in the Vulkanfelsen (“volcanic cliffs”) section of the Kaiserstuhl, just across the river from the Alsace. This is a “first-class wine district,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and indeed, we tasted some lovely things at Wasenweiler, a cooperative winery we toured.

Despite Baden’s many fine wines, there’s a very good chance you’ve never actually tasted anything from this region. Even Binny’s, one of the largest wine stores in the country, carries precisely zero wines from Baden. Because of the marketing success of the massive Zentralkellerei Badischer Winzergenossenschaften (ZBW), almost all exports out of Baden are “well-made, but rather basic, characterless wine,” as the Encyclopedia notes. But an array of smaller producers makes very high-quality wines, as the Encyclopedia and I agree, and it’s a shame we can’t find them outside of Germany (or even outside Baden, for that matter).

I brought back one bottle from Wasenweiler, a 2007 “Kreuzhalde” Gewürztraminer Spätlese. It’s quite a mouthful, both in terms of pronunciation and flavor. “Kreuzhalde” is the name of the specific vineyard, a hilly, sunny site that requires harvesting by hand (you can see a photo here). “Spätlese” refers to the level of the fruit’s ripeness at the time it was picked, as measured by the amount of sugar in the grapes. It translates basically as “late harvest,” but it falls in the rough middle of the scale, between Kabinett and Auslese. And Gewürztraminer is the wonderful grape variety, which The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “Deeply colored, opulently aromatic and fuller bodied than almost any other white wine.”

And so it was. The Wasenweiler looked honey-gold in the glass, and the aroma! A heady honeysuckle perfume. But my worries that this wine had aged too long were only finally dispelled when I gave it a try. The acids remained mostly intact, ensuring balance and liveliness. It tasted exotic and spicy, with flavors of ripe pear, cinnamon, ginger, jasmine and incense, yet it was surprisingly dry. It stood up quite well to a dinner of vegetarian choucroute (sauerkraut cooked with veggies, spices and wine) and Käsespätzle (noodle-like dumplings with caramelized leeks, butter and Emmentaler cheese).

What a wonderful reminder of that sunny day in Ihringen, when we got semi-lost on the way to the winery and wandered for a while along vineyards and well-tended gardens. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that wines from Baden are so hard to find. Now, whenever I have the chance to drink one, it’s a truly special experience, bringing me right back to that glorious piece of German countryside. It makes me hunger for a return trip, and it reminds me how lucky I am to have lived there for a time.

And somehow, it’s reassuring to know that there are still some things you can get only by traveling to the source.

The Island Vineyards of Firelands

18 April 2012
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Last June, I wrote about Ohio’s Lake Erie Islands, which wine critic Frank Schoonmaker highlighted as an important viticultural region in a 1941 issue of Gourmet. But even then, Schoonmaker lamented the lost potential of these islands, which feature unusually favorable terroir for certain grape varieties. Prohibition killed off a number of wineries, and most of those that remained in the mid-20th century were apparently lazy or incompetent. According to Schoonmaker, “Too many – far too many – wines are falsified, are heavily dosed with sugar, or are blended with cheap California wines.”

With significantly declining acreage devoted to vineyards, I had basically written off these romantic-sounding islands. What a pleasant surprise then, to come across a bottle of 2010 Firelands Gewürztraminer from Isle St. George. Also known more prosaically as North Bass Island, Isle St. George achieved AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 1982, and vineyards currently cover more than half the island.


Honeysuckle and Tobacco

23 June 2011

Before some friends came over to dinner the other night, they thoughtfully called to offer to bring a bottle of wine. I planned on making some Southeast Asian-inspired dishes, which always seem to cry out for Gewürztraminer. I have a soft spot for floral, aromatic whites, and a good Gewürztraminer can work wonders with fresh herb-heavy Lao, Cambodian and Thai recipes.

My friends obliged with a 2009 Robertson Winery “Special Late Harvest” Gewurztraminer (they spell it without the umlaut) from South Africa, far from the varietal’s most well-known home of the Alsace. I’d sampled German, Australian, French, American and even Spanish Gewürztraminers, but never one from South Africa. I was intrigued, but concerned that “Special Late Harvest” might just be a fancy way of saying “cloyingly sweet.”


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